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Profile of the Harpsichord

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Name of Instrument:

Harpsichord

Family:

Keyboard

How to Play:

Like the clavichord, the harpsichord has keys that the player presses to produce tones. However, unlike the clavichord, the 2 or more set of strings of the harpsichord are plucked by a plectrum which enables it to produce a louder sound. Early harpsichords were incapable of producing dynamic changes in tone or loudness. The harpsichord underwent many changes through the years. For example, more strings were added and some manufacturers also added a second keyboard making it possible to rapidly alter its volume.

History of Harpsichords:

Not much is known about the harpsichord's early history. This wing-shaped instrument is believed to have emerged from the psaltery - a hand-held instrument that is plucked by a plectrum. It was especially popular in European music during the 16th to mid-18th century, so much so that several schools were opened solely for the purpose of constructing harpsichords. Many Baroque composers wrote for and played this instrument. However, by the second half of the 18th century, the popularity of the harpsichord was overshadowed by the pianoforte.

Known Harpsichord Builders:

  • The Ruckers, a Flemish family, were especially known for building harpsichords and virginals until about 1680.

  • The Blanchet family of France were known for their craftsmanship in building harpsichords based on Rucker's models. This tradition was continued by Pascal Taskin who was related to the Blanchet family through marriage.

  • In London, the Kirkman family and the Shudi family were known for building harpsichords and eventually pianos.

  • In Germany, the Hass family was notable for building harpsichords.
  • Harpsichord Varieties and Revival:

    Other varieties of the harpsichord are the clavicytherium, spinet and virginal.

    In the 1890's, the Paris piano company of Érard and Pleyel built new harpsichords which helped revive interest on the instrument. The British musician Arnold Dolmetsch also built harpsichords and influenced the British and American schools of harpsichord making.

    Harpsichord Composers:

    Related Video:

    Watch this YouTube video of José Iturbi playing on a harpsichord.
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